"I guess we can call Friday night in the SEC the Aaron Nola Show. I don't know what else to say about him. He's just amazing."
- LSU Coach Paul Mainieri
The discussion surrounding the Twins and who they'll take fifth overall in nine days' time involves mostly two players: prep shortstop Nick Gordon, and LSU right-hander Aaron Nola. Let's find out more about Nola, shall we?
School & Player History
Nola was a talented right-hander who was known for his command in high school, and the Mariners took a flyer on him in the 22nd round, making him the 679th player to be selected in the 2011 draft. But he was committed to LSU, and went to college and became a teammate of the fourth overall pick in 2011, Kevin Gausman (who Nola was just as good as, as a freshman), as well as Twins second-round pick last season, Ryan Eades (who Nola was better than). Nola was also able to play with his brother, Austin, who was LSU's shortstop and is currently with Miami's Double-A affiliate.
Now finishing his junior season as (by far) the best pitcher in the Tiger rotation, Nola helped lead LSU to first place finishes in each of his three seasons in Louisiana. He's the epitome of the collegiate Friday Night Pitcher. Ranked the number four club in the NCAA through yesterday, the Tigers took down Florida yesterday to take home the 2014 SEC title. Nola didn't pitch in the game, but there's no doubt he helped get them there. His results (10.49 K/9, 0.83 WHIP, 1.49 ERA in 109 innings) speak for themselves, as he has definitely had the stuff to dominate collegiate hitters.
He's a two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year. He was invited to play for Team USA. He's been on multiple lists as a first-team All-American.
Nola is known to be a highly-polished pitcher, which might be something of a buzz word for Twins fans who hear "polished" and immediately think of Alex Wimmers and Levi Michael. The difference is, of course, in the talent level. As one of the draft's top collegiate arms (or just straight up "the best college arm"), "high floor" is basically where the pre-draft comparison to Wimmers, in particular, ends.
The two-seam fastball is a unanimous plus pitch. The curve and the change are both considered potentially plus offerings, due in no small part to the angles that Nola can achieve, although which pitch is better is going to depend on when each scout saw the LSU ace pitch. Each of these offerings are commanded impeccably, which - according to many reports - is quite possibly Nola's best asset as a pitcher. On the 20-80 scale, most have him rated at a 65 to a 70. Keith Law disagrees, however, projecting Nola's future command as an above-average 55. He also believes it's the curve that has the potential to be Nola's second-best pitch, while the change could be nothing more than average.
Essentially, most scouting reports seem to insist that Nola is a magician with his command, and that it's what will allow him to reach his potential. But other reports, such as Law's, believe the command won't mature and that, ultimately, it will expose his mediocre stuff.
Another one of Nola's strengths, the best anecdote I've read is that it seems like he's just handing the ball to the catcher. He's efficient in motion with a repeatable delivery, and throws nearly side-armed; a number of reports call it a three-quarters delivery, but that's just because there's nothing to call a delivery that's lower than three-quarters but higher than a sidewinder - perhaps two-thirds?
The motion allows the breaking ball to scare the crap out of right-handed hitters, and the angle also allows him to get some pretty incredible movement - on the curve, yes, but the movement on that fastball is ridiculous. Combine it with a cruising speed of around 93 or 94, and it's no wonder that the fastball is considered a good pitch.
That delivery does have a tendency to leave the breaking ball up sometimes, which is where pro hitters will punish Nola. He'll need to be more consistent with it going forward, but that's on his new coaches to help him make that adjustment.
Overall the mechanics grade out well, with the two-thirds delivery seen as easy, natural, and an asset to Nola's potential success.
This seems to be the knock on Nola. While there is some concern that his stuff won't translate to pro ball, the fact that he's "only" 6' 1" seems to be a deterrent on a number of the reports. To be fair to the assessment, if you look at the best pitchers in baseball a vast majority of them are taller. But I've never been a believer that size trumps ability in sports - the best athletes succeed regardless of size. So while I can concede that the odds may be against him, I'm not sure that it's worth writing him off for the number five overall pick.
Most mock drafts still have Rodon, Kolek, and Brady Aiken going in the top three or four spots, which means that Aaron Nola would be the next best arm available. His addition to the Minnesota farm system would mean another arm in the organization's Top 10 prospects, and I imagine he'd probably slot into the five to seven range.
Is he a good choice for the Twins? Comparisons rate him similarly to Mike Leake, albeit with greater upside and the potential to be a strong number three. By that rationale, he could debut for the Twins in 2016 in a rotation featuring at least two young arms already with one or two more on the horizon. Having a young, talented, and inexpensive starting rotation means tons of money available for the position player side of things, which would enable the organization to surround Buxton, Sano, Arica, Rosario, and others with veteran contributors.
But, just like the philosophy of drafting Nick Gordon because the system really doesn't have a true shortstop, drafting Nola to ensure a young and inexpensive Major League rotation is putting the cart before the horse. The real question should be: is Nola the best player available at number five? If he is, or if the Twins think he is, then we'll hear his name early next Thursday evening.
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